anti globalization and the simplicity movement are counter balances to over commercialization and the walmart mindset which equates happiness with cheap material goods

By Bob Houk
VP-Strategic Planning
CoAMS, Inc. (Co-op Advertising Marketing Service)
Chicago, Illinois

"Ad clutter" is something that has been talked about for years. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say in a meeting, "We’ve got to find a way to break through the clutter!"

One of the favored ways to break through is to find a new medium – something that will catch the jaded public’s attention. The problem is that the new medium catches attention only so long as it’s new. After that, it’s just more clutter.

I don't think we need to establish the point that we are all being faced with more ads (a recent study by Jupiter Research says that the average American sees or hears about 3,000 advertising message a day, up from about 600 per day in the mid-eighties). Still, a few examples can't hurt:

  • Almost every sporting event now comes with a sponsor name (Doritos Fiesta Bowl).
  • Most stadiums are now named for a sponsor (Staples Center).
  • Here in Chicago, the City Council is considering selling sponsorship rights to city parks (will it be Pepsi Grant Park and the IBM Museum of Science & Industry? How much longer before Lake Shore Drive has a new name?)
  • Buses no longer just have ads on them, they *are* ads.
  • Recently, it seems that I keep reading more articles about more new media (which indicates that perhaps I should change my reading habits).

    We have in-store radio and TV, ads on shopping carts and on the floor, a TV channel directed at people sitting in airports, and of course logos stuck all over our clothing (well, not my clothing, but my daughter's). I’ve heard (but haven’t seen yet) of plans to offer movie previews on ATM screens – currently we just get ads for the bank’s home equity loans. Even gas pumps have ads – at the convenience store where I buy gas, they run text messages on the pump enticing me to come inside to try their delicious cardboard sandwiches.

    And while new media pop up everywhere, the existing media are proliferating. Instead of the half-dozen broadcast TV stations most of us grew up with, we now have fifty or so cable channels (except for those who have a hundred or so channels via satellite). We have on-line radio to compete with broadcast radio). And there are now more than six thousand consumer magazines in the market (there are so many magazines, in fact, that the circulation for top mags has dropped by an average 38% in the past decade).

    Additionally, the ad volume of all these media outlets seems to be growing: time devoted to ads on TV networks is at record levels (fifteen minutes per hour was once a mystical barrier – this year two networks have breached it), and magazine ad pages are also up.

    In an article in MediaLife, Erwin Ephron, a media consultant, is quoted as saying, "It’s a big issue because it’s diminishing the effectiveness of television. The bottom line is the only solution to TV clutter is to shift dollars to other media." He adds that, "It’s a problem that has been with us a long time. Clutter used to be part of a creative problem. If you had an ad that could get your attention you could break through. But now you have so many commercials it doesn’t work anymore."

    An expert in new product introductions gave me an example of the declining effectiveness of TV recently. In his business, he is greatly interested in building awareness levels of client products. He tracks these levels, and reports that a given number of rating points will now create awareness levels consistently five to six points lower than what the same number of GRPs would have created a decade ago. It is reasonable to assume that similar decreases in effectiveness are being seen in other media.

    Herbert Simon, the winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics, once wrote that "What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it."

    Ads are information, and too many of them mean that we consumers have to ration our attention. If we used to take in six hundred ads a day and now we get three thousand, it stands to reason that the average amount of attention we pay to each of them will be cut proportionately.

    This, of course, leads the advertiser to become more desperate to break through the clutter and more willing to try new ad media in order to do so. Which in turn feeds the vicious cycle by creating more clutter, which cuts down further on the attention we pay to each ad.

    A question: If at some point (perhaps already passed) the target becomes indifferent to the ads because there are too many of them, is there another point at which s/he becomes actively hostile? To rephrase, rather than advertising being merely ineffective because it can't break through the clutter, will desperate attempts to break through become counter-productive?

    In some cases, I think this is happening, but it happens in relation to specific types of media that individual consumers find annoying. I, for example, despise on-hold messages. Has it ever occurred to the people who do on-hold advertising, that a person who's being forced to hold long enough to listen to an ad is probably not in a very receptive frame of mind for a message that tells him what a great company it is that's making him hold?

    But is there a point at which consumers as a whole, or at least significant subsets of the consumer base, will rebel? Will they not just tune out your ad, but actually say, "I wouldn’t buy that blankety-blank product if they were giving it away?"

    Probably not – since your competitors are doing much the same thing. But it might be something to think about the next time an advertising salesperson comes to you with an opportunity in an exciting new medium. You might ask whether hitting consumers from another angle will annoy them more than it will entice them.

    Definitely think about it if Mayor Daley calls you to ask if you want the naming rights to Lake Shore Drive. I don’t think the locals will react well to renaming it Coca Cola Avenue.

    This article appeared in the October 2000 issue ofOutlook.

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